The wooranna way
By Ray Trotter, Principal, Wooranna Park Primary School
with the help of Jennie Vine and Janet Whittle, Assistant Principals.
One School's Journey To Create A New Education Paradigm
The curriculum work outlined in this booklet took place at Wooranna Park Primary School, beginning around 1996. It continues to be developed at WPPS through teams of teachers and by the school’s leadership team.
The integrity of the program has been worked on for practising teaching and learning, to enable every teacher and student at Wooranna Park Primary School to become deep learners. Please use the terms and concepts, as well as the application of the program, with reference to WPPS.
Wooranna Park Primary School
89-105 Carlton Rd, Dandenong North VIC 3175
+61 3 9795 2007
Book Designed, Edited and Produced by Dr Josey De Rossi, Fantastic Learning Systems P/L (FLS) through FLS’s schoolstoryexperience.com initiative. Learn more at https://www.facebook.com/sellourschool
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
The wooranna Way
Innovative Educators Series
Ray Trotter, Principal
with help from Jennie Vine and Janet Whittle, Assistant Principals, Wooranna Park Primary School
The Wooranna Way: One School's Journey To Create A New Education Paradigm
Produced by Fantastic Learning Systems
A schoolstoryexperience.com initiative
"Progress is impossible without change, and those who can't change their minds, cannot change anything."
George Bernard Shaw
Table of contents
Why do we need to change?
The explosion in human knowledge.
An uncertain future
Underachievement and lack of engagement
The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM)
Big data versus small data
What are the underpinning principles of such a change?
Schools as places of learning, not teaching
A learning culture
A culture that acknowledges the future
Informal, non-hierarchical and open learning
How have our teachers and students implemented these changes?
Learning communities and personalised student learning
Autonomous Learner Cards
Students as teachers and mentors
Entrepreneurial and digital skills
Stimulating Learning Platforms
Prioritising student agency
Two more issues: the overcrowded curriculum and the state of educational leadership
Appendix: Technology Terms
About producing this book
As Principal of Wooranna Park Primary School (WPPS) since 1987, I have had three of my six grandchildren attend my school. Seeing your school through the eyes of a child that you love can be an interesting experience, full of wonderful and sobering interludes. Being told one Sunday morning that my prep grade grandson was crying because he couldn’t go to school is very much a highlight, but this needs to be balanced by my inability to answer many of the ‘Why can’t we?’ questions asked of me. Looking through my grandchildren’s eyes has fuelled my desire to create a school where curiosity and excitement pervade children’s learning.
Schools, despite their core purpose, traditionally have been places built to service the needs of teachers, rather than learners. They are places where students are told what they need to learn, rather than places where they are encouraged to have agency over their learning (I discuss what I mean by ‘agency’ later in this paper). The excitement with which children commence their schooling is all too often replaced with a somewhat subdued acceptance that going to school is just another must-do part of growing up.
In 1993, WPPS was appointed a ‘Gifted and Talented Resource Centre’ by the Victorian Education Department. To meet this responsibility, we initiated a program of workshops for talented students from schools throughout Victoria. While the workshops were always over-subscribed, we realised that even when our own students attended the workshops, they returned to classrooms where little attention was given to differentiating the curriculum, or to providing opportunities for students to negotiate their learning. We had also come to recognise that all of our students, not only those identified as gifted and talented, had talents that needed to be developed. In response, in 1997 we established the ‘Autonomous Learning Unit’ for our Year 5 and 6 students. Since that time, WPPS has sought to shift the education paradigm for all of our students.
In creating this paradigm shift, the school has had to address the three fundamental questions of why, what and how. Why do we need to change, what are the underpinning principles of such a change, and how will these principles be implemented? In addressing these questions, this paper will highlight the blend of best and next-practice pedagogy1 we have developed at the school. The imperative that I hope readers will come to affirm is how primary school students as curious, critical, creative thinkers, capable of astounding their teachers and parents when encouraged to co-design their learning around their passions and interests.
For those readers wishing to transform their teaching and learning practices, the following words written by Buckminster Fuller may open a window to the task ahead:
‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes
the existing model obsolete.’
The explosion in human knowledge
Today’s students are living in a world vastly different from the one in which their parents grew up. The shelf life of education is shorter than it has ever been. Simon Torok and Paul Holper in their 2016 book Imagining the Future: Invisibility, Immortality and 40 Other Incredible Ideas write that at the start of the twentieth century, the amount of human knowledge doubled every 100 years. It now doubles every year and by 2020, according to Torak and Holper, could double every day. Despite this explosion in human knowledge, our school curriculum is still primarily based on the same principles that created compliant workers for factories. Arne Duncan, the US Secretary for Education during the Obama presidency, addressed this issue in his 2018 book How Schools Work:
Our schools were beautifully designed to meet exactly their intended purpose, which was to prepare the bulk of kids for assembly-line work in factories while also picking a small number of kids to be the elite that managed those factory workers. This is a completely outmoded way of thinking about education. At the highest level we need to change the way we think about what schools prepare kids to do and how they go about doing that. We need to reform education.
Thankfully, the explosion of new knowledge described above is not just shortening the shelf life of education: it is also helping us to identify areas in our approach to schooling that need to be improved. As Eric Sheninger and Thomas Murray (2017) note, studies in neuroscience indicate that students usually forget most of the fact-based information they are asked to memorise at school. ‘Shoving this information into students’ brains wastes time and resources,’ they observe, ‘while engagement plummets’. They also point out that learners crave the opportunity to pursue their passions and interests and to engage in relevant tasks. They highlight the importance of student agency; of developing instructional pedagogical practices that focus on higher-order skills and problem solving; and of ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning.
An uncertain future
At the same time, our students are facing an uncertain future, with young people around Australia finding it increasingly difficult to obtain full-time work. The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA, 2018) tells us that nearly half of Australia’s 25 year-olds face the new work reality and are unable to secure full-time employment, despite 60% holding post-school qualifications. The report highlights significant failings in preparing today’s students for the workforce, with large numbers of our young people.
More than ever before, young people need access to relevant, high-quality education and learning systems that reflect and respond to their changing and diverse needs, and those of the economy. Investment in redesigning learning pathways from education to work to ensure young Australians are equipped and empowered with the skills, mindset and confidence to navigate The New Work Reality is essential.
(FYA 2018, p.3)
Research undertaken by Oxford University (Frey & Osborne, 2013) tells us that 47 per cent of the world’s current jobs are at risk in the future due to global forces. The FYA (2017) identifies these global forces as automation, globalisation and flexibility. Their research also highlights the need to better prepare our students for the workforce by prioritising the teaching of STEM subjects and enterprise skills such as problem-solving, creativity and social intelligence, along with digital and financial literacies.
The increase in freelance workers in Australia is also of significance. A study by the freelancer site Upwork in 2015 (cited in Chung, 2015) revealed that the Australian freelance economy had grown to 4.1 million—32 per cent of the Australian workforce. Yet traditional teaching practices rarely focus on developing entrepreneurial skills in primary school students, or provide students with the opportunity to enhance individual talents that, while they fall outside the traditional subject areas, are valuable in the workforce—humour, film making, public speaking, athleticism, inventiveness and empathy, to mention only a few. Research advocating the development of entrepreneurial skills in primary-age children by the Chinese American educator Professor Yong Zhao (2012, 2016a) adds to this view.
A recent report prepared by Kate Torii (2018) for the Mitchell Institute, ‘Connecting the worlds of learning and work’, advocates a major shift in our approach to schooling. Central to this shift is the need to strengthen school–industry partnerships across our education system. Torii advances three key policy priorities that she believes will help achieve this:
school–industry partnerships need to be valued and measured at the system level
school–industry partnerships need to be a priority in all schools, and
governments need to make it easier for all parties to engage in school–industry partnerships.
Torii acknowledges the work involved in making these partnerships succeed:
Further work is needed to build greater understanding of the benefits and drivers for industry, as well as the resourcing and supports needed for industry partners to engage effectively with schools.
(Torii, 2018, p.20)
Underachievement and lack of engagement
Failing to prepare our students to enter the workforce is not the only problem in our schools today. Underachievement and lack of engagement permeate them. Geoff Masters, Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), lists the ‘long tail’ of underachieving students who fall behind year level expectations and fail to meet minimum international standards as a significant problem for Australian schools (2016), while an Australian engagement survey commissioned by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) shows that a significant number of students fail to feel a sense of belonging at school, or a connection with the learning (AITSL, 2014). Any experienced secondary teacher will tell you that two of the questions students most commonly ask are ‘How many words do I have to write?’, and ‘Will this count towards the end of year exam?’ Such questions do not project an excitement for learning!
The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM)
Sir Ken Robinson is one of many educators arguing for sweeping changes to how we educate our students. He shares a belief with Pasi Sahlberg, the acclaimed Finnish educator and Professor at the Gonski Institute of Education, UNSW, that the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) presently dominating the education systems of most western countries is, in fact, focused on standardising educational outcomes. Hence, Sahlberg’s provocative comments in 2012 in his TedTalk address and in The Washington Post that educational reforms should be likened to the spreading of a virus through the way that
Curricula are standardized to fit to international student tests; and students around the world study learning materials from global providers. Education reforms in different countries also follow similar patterns. So visible is this common way of improvement that I call it the Global Educational Reform Movement or GERM. It is like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus. It travels with pundits, media and politicians. Education systems borrow policies from others and get infected. As a consequence, schools get ill, teachers don’t feel well, and kids learn less.
(Washington Post, 29 June)
Arguably, the GERM phenomenon may explain the widespread underachievement reported on in Australian schools. Robinson (2016) recognises, for instance, that our present system of education is based on a particular conception of conformity that prioritises a certain type of intellectual conformity, inconsistent with the uniqueness and breadth of human intelligence. ‘Some people are good at it; some are not!’ By prioritising a narrow concept of intelligence, we might also conclude that our education systems stop looking for other types of intelligence, resulting in a large group of our students being considered low achievers, despite the fact that their talents lie elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the introduction of the My School website and NAPLAN for Australian schools has compounded this problem, by highlighting and praising schools and students good at teaching and learning this narrow range of intellectual intelligence. This often comes at the expense of not focusing on subject areas unfairly judged as less important or not easily tested, as schools feel pressured to streamline their curriculum in search of higher test scores. Of even greater significance is the realisation that building such education structures in western countries has created a generation of students more interested in their grades than their learning (Sheninger & Murray, 2017). For international readers not familiar with the terms, NAPLAN is Australia’s ‘National Assessment Program’ in literacy and numeracy, conducted in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, and My School is a website that allows parents to assess the NAPLAN results of their child’s school against those of other schools.
Regrettably, these are not the only problems associated with NAPLAN. In a recent article, Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics at Stanford University, points out that traditional teaching practices aimed at the memorisation of number facts for fast recall are hindering children’s mathematics learning (2015). In contrast, research shows that students should learn to calculate as they develop their understanding of number, and speed should never be emphasised. She also comments on the fear and anxiety caused by over-testing which, when combined with a focus on speed, results in many students—particularly those who are more deliberate in their thinking—believing they are not good at mathematics.
The same factors that Boaler sees as hindering children’s ability to increase their mathematics skills are also central to how NAPLAN is administered. The tests are time controlled, so speed is a major factor. Traditionally, teachers drill students in preparation for the tests, thus focusing on memorisation rather than developing understandings. Significant numbers of students find the tests extremely stressful, which is clearly not conducive to them performing well. Not unexpectedly, our students are failing to show improvement. In response, the Australian Government introduced additional tests in 2018, thus compounding the problem of over-testing.2 I strongly believe that NAPLAN would lose its attraction overnight if parents were also required to sit the test!
Pleasingly, from my point of view, NAPLAN and the My School website are not without their critics. Radhika Gorur and Stephan Lewis (2017) from Deakin University comment on how information gained from NAPLAN about individual students, classrooms and schools is too limited and error prone to be of use. Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Geoff Masters (2017) also supports changes to NAPLAN in order ‘to place less emphasis on comparing the performances of schools and more emphasis on supporting student learning’, as does Tom Bentley and Glen Savage (2017) who argue that NAPLAN and My School have not led to improvements in literacy and numeracy, with the data showing either stagnation or decline. The latter seems a particularly powerful statement considering that Tom Bentley was a senior advisor to the former Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, who introduced My School and NAPLAN.
Our Federal Government’s fixation on improving our OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ratings may also need to be re-evaluated. Since 2006, Singapore has been one of the top performers in the PISA testing program. Despite this, Singapore’s education system has been criticised. Rodney King, in his book Singapore’s Education, Myth and Reality: A Reputation Deserved or Fabricated? (2016) questions the city-state’s claims to education excellence and examines the effectiveness of their pressure cooker education system. King’s analysis of Singapore’s education system is echoed by Angela Jelita (2017) in the South China Morning Post, who writes:
The country’s school system is geared towards high achievement in exams, but the emphasis on rote learning and memorization, combined with pressure to succeed affects children’s social skills, health and overall happiness.
(Jelita, South China Morning Post, 21 September)
As evidence for this, Jelita cites the reported 27 suicides among 10 to 19 year olds in Singapore during 2015, although she also recognises that parental pressure, not just pressure from schools, is a significant factor in these deaths.
Anecdotes I have heard from visiting teachers from Singapore also raises questions as to the validity of the OECD testing program as a measure of a country’s education system. In spite of their high OECD results over many years, when asked why they seek the help of Australian schools and universities in improving their teaching of mathematics, Singapore teachers invariably highlight the fact that very few of their students want to become mathematicians: their love of the subject has been ‘drilled’ out of them.
When considering the importance of OECD testing, it is pertinent to note Finland’s attitude to such testing, as highlighted by the following comment by Pasi Sahlberg interview with New Zealander Bryan Bruce:
Finland has never really been too excited about PISA results. Not in the good days or the bad times. We don’t think education is a global competition.
(Bruce, 26 May 2016, youtu.be/1w7CunvjvdE )
Australia’s teaching profession must also accept part of the responsibility for the state of education in our schools. Too many schools, as mentioned previously, have chosen to narrow their curriculum in order to satisfy State and Federal Governments’ obsession with cognitive, academic outcomes. This has led to a devaluing of ‘non-cognitive outcomes’, described by Dean Ashenden as ‘the values and attitudes that kids take from schools’, highlighting how schools matter more “to the social order than they do [to] ‘the economy’. They help (or fail) to sustain the cohesive social order on which economic activity depends. (Ashenden, 2018)
Too many of our schools have also chosen to adopt teaching practices that research has shown to be enervating to students’ perception of themselves as learners.3 One of these practices is streaming. Henrietta Cook quotes OECD findings that around 98 per cent of Australian secondary schools use some form of streaming. Cook also quotes Professor John Hattie, who believes that the effects of streaming on equity is both ‘profound and negative’. The ‘Evidence for Learning’ Toolkit compiled by Social Ventures Australia (SVA) refers to streaming as having a negative impact on learning, even though it continues to be amongst the dominant pedagogical approaches currently used in classrooms. 4
The use of data boards (aka as League Tables) to publicise student achievement levels is equally damaging to the self-esteem of low achieving students. In my opinion, the following words of film producer and educator Lord David Puttnam about his own schooling is essential reading for all educators:
[U]nder-achievement most frequently stems from a lack of expectation as originally perceived in the eyes of others. A lack of expectation we come to accept as our reality, our fate.
Big data versus small data
Before concluding this segment of the paper, I believe it is pertinent to comment on the growing importance given to big data in Australian schools. Pasi Sahlberg and Jonathan Hasak argue that big data ‘at best only reveals correlations between variables in education, not causality’. They also conclude that big data alone will not improve our system of education and affirm the importance of small data in uncovering huge trends.
In education, these small clues are often hidden in the invisible fabric of schools. Understanding this fabric must become a priority for improving education.
(Sahlberg & Hasak, Washington Post, 9 May 2016)
The issue, as I see it, is not whether we should disregard big data in favour of using small data, although I do agree with Sahlberg and Hasak that small data is far more informative. Rather, we need to recognise that all data needs to be weighed against what we, the educators, know about our students and schools. Tricia Wang notes the famed Swedish statistician Hans Rosling’s annoyance with the widespread application of big data without ‘thick data’, or human insights. ‘I’m not interested in data’, he said, ‘I’m interested in people and life’ (Rosling cited in Wang, 2017). The danger that I see permeating our profession is that increasingly teachers are regarding big data, in particular as gleaned from standardised tests, as the ‘Holy Grail’ of evidence, impervious to error. It is also pertinent when assessing the importance of standardised tests to consider what research says about their connection to students’ future success. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, for example, has undertaken a study that shows that grades, which measure personality traits like grit and attention to detail, are better predictors of success at college or in the workplace than IQ and SAT tests (Staley, 2006).
Unfortunately, the issue of big versus small data, and teacher assessments versus standardised tests is only one aspect of a much bigger problem of the ever-increasing volume of data educators are being asked to gather and process. The issue, I believe, is now mixed up with constant need for educators to prove their personal worth. For many teachers and school leaders, it consumes much of the school day previously devoted to educating students. Nor is such a problem restricted to Australia. Educators and parents around the world are battling with politicians to stop this ‘datafication’ of students and schools. For instance, the UK organisation morethanascore.co.uk is typical of such groups and well worth exploring, as are the writings of the US critic and commentator Eric Donald Hirsch Jr (2016), who describes US schools as ‘soulless test-prep factories.’
Supposedly, GERM advocates strive for higher standards, a goal that on the face of it is undisputed in education. Unfortunately, in our desire to achieve higher standards, educators have also impeded our students’ passion for learning. David Geurin, a principal and prominent US education blogger, addresses this conundrum in his book Future Driven, writing about the need to rekindle students’ passion for learning at a time when accountability has been prioritised to the detriment of everything else. ‘If our students master every standard but do not discover joy and passion in learning,’ he writes, ‘we have failed them’ (2017, p …).
Pleasingly, closer to home, the New Zealand Minister for Education Chris Hipkins has announced that his government will abolish their National Standards Program, arguing that the national standards are neither national nor standard (Cormick, 2017).
Why do we need to change?
The rapid advancements in technology described above, along with an ever increasing groundswell of disengaged students, is forcing many educators to question their pedagogical practice and rethink the existing culture of teaching. Enterprising governments and employers are increasingly searching for more than just literate and numerate employees. Creativity, critical thinking, communication skills and digital literacy are just a few of the twenty-first century skills our students need to live fulfilling lives.
Today’s Generation Z students, born between 1995 and 2009, make up about 20 per cent of Australia’s population (McPherson, 2017). They are characterised as highly individual, entrepreneurial, globally connected, digital natives. The digital world is their playground, providing instant gratification and access to the world at large. However, a new generation of students is fast replacing Generation Z students in our primary schools. According to futurist and demographer Mark McCrindle, children born after 2010 are our Alpha Generation, and 2.5 million Alphas are born around the globe every week. Christine Sterbenz (2015) describes Alpha kids as never being without an iPad and smartphone, and being able to convey their thoughts online in an instant. Maintaining their interest at school, then, requires a real world, authentic approach to curriculum planning, along with a more personalised and differentiated focus when addressing individual student’s needs. Creating such an environment must, I believe, include:
the recognition that the exponential growth of knowledge will require extensive changes to how we educate children
a curriculum that balances the cognitive outcomes learned at school with the values and attitudes students take from school
student agency established as a priority across the school
an emphasis on the development of entrepreneurial and enterprise skills
a strong focus on innovation to address the ever-changing nature of our world
the ubiquitous use of ICT
the development of appropriate growth mindsets in our students
harnessing social media as an educational tool
a strong focus on collaborative, problem based, enquiry learning
STEM subjects being given a prominence in the curriculum
less grouping of students according to age
team teaching, where groups of teachers truly share responsibility for the students in their care
a dramatic increase in the use of mentors, particularly from the ranks of our skilled retirees, to assist young students
ongoing professional development for all school personnel
an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum development, with prominence given to the sustainability of our planet, global citizenship, creativity and the arts
an increased focus on ‘real world’ learning, with a recognition of the importance of Asian literacy for the future of Australia, and finally
the teacher’s role being expanded to include the roles of mentor, researcher, facilitator, student confidant, co-learner and co-creator of the learning—while recognising that the very best of our teachers prioritise the nurturing of students’ self-esteem and the building of students’ thirst for learning in their classrooms.
The Need For A Raison D’être
In our hope to achieve such innovations at Wooranna Park, we have spent a great deal of time over the years as school leaders and teachers, defining our school's philosophical direction—its Raison D’être—outlining significant aspects of our school’s beliefs about teaching and learning, its organisational structures and learning environment, along with the school’s approach to curriculum, leadership and assessment. Without such a document, I believe, it would have been extremely difficult for us to adopt a collective approach to teaching and learning across the school, or upgrade our practices as required. More importantly, without our Raison D’être we would have had not know where we wanted to go, let alone enter the necessary debate on the best road to take to get there. [Click anywhere in this paragraph to view it.]
Schools as places of learning, not teaching
In 2006, I was invited to speak at a conference in Singapore, ‘Teach less, learn more’. This was the first time I can remember attending a conference that openly challenged the dominance of teaching in the learning process. Since then, we have seen dynamic examples such as Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments that have demonstrated young children’s capacity to direct their own learning.
Despite such experiments, there seems to be little appetite for rethinking the existing culture of teaching. Education theorists like John Hattie and Richard Elmore, with their focus on Visible Learning and Teaching Rounds have, arguably, further strengthened this culture in recent years. This is despite experts in the field of statistical analysis describing Hattie’s work as pseudoscience (Bergeron & Rivard, 2017) and my personal discomfort with Elmore’s perception of the ‘master teacher’, as displayed in film clips used to illustrate his theories.
This is not to argue that we should not judge some teaching approaches more effective than others, or that teachers shouldn’t be required to improve their teaching skills. Rather, I would suggest we should to be careful not to accept all of Hattie’s work, without question. Particularly since Hattie's interpretation of data infers that ‘giving students control of their learning’, ‘problem based learning’ and ‘inquiry based teaching’, is of little or no value in the classroom! (Moore 2017) This is something I could not agree with!
Richard Elmore’s work on giving and receiving feedback also needs to be reviewed with a critical eye. A recently published paper written by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, titled ‘The Feedback Fallacy’ (2019), addresses the issue like this:
“Your brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and narrows its activity. The strong negative emotion produced by criticism ‘inhibits access to existing neural circuits and invokes cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment.’
(Imbedded quote by psychology and business professor Richard Buyatzis accessed https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-feedback-fallacy.)
What makes effective feedback problematic in most schools is the hierarchical structure of schools. An alternative 'flatter' structure is outlined by Aaron De Smet et al for McKinsey & Company (October 2018) in "Leading agile transformation: The new capabilities leaders need to build 21st century organizations". It argues for turning away from viewing organizations as a static, siloed, structurally hierarchical machine-like thing that functions through linear planning and control. As the world becomes increasingly more complex, many organizations are recognising that they need to become more agile as their workers find themselves “drowning in complexity”. The McKinsey paper describes agile organizations as:
“open, inclusive, and nonhierarchical, evolving continually without the frequent disruptive restructurings required in more mechanistic organizations; and they embrace uncertainty and ambiguity with greater confidence.”
(De Smet, Lurie & St George, 2018, p.5)
The majority of schools function on the hierarchical organization model, with each level of leadership answerable to the level above. This contrasts with the ‘flat model of management’ considered more appropriate to address the changing nature of work in the 21st century. Buckingham and Goodall (2019) views on effective feedback seem particularly pertinent in this respect:
“We humans do not do well when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where we stand, how good we “really” are, and what we must do to fix ourselves. We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works.”
(Buckingham & Goodall accessed https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-feedback-fallacy.)
However, there may more serious implications associated with both Elmore and Hattie’s work, as educators apply their methodologies to further bolster a culture of teaching in our schools, rather than a culture of learning. A culture of teaching projects the learner as a passive recipient of the learning, while a culture of learning portrays the learner as an active participant in the search for knowledge.
A learning culture
Recently many schools, including WPPS, have adopted a list of ‘C’ words to define the attributes needed for our students to live fulfilling lives: collaboration; citizenship; communication; creativity; curiosity; character and critical thinking. Will Richardson (2017b) argues that if you want students to become proficient with these attributes, you have to have a culture that supports that type of work. Not just any culture, a learning culture—one where everyone, teachers and students, see themselves as learners. Richardson sums up his thoughts on the subject with the following words:
[T]eaching cultures don’t sustain innovation. They don’t support curiosity or creativity. They don’t demand real world problem solving that requires critical thinking . Only learning cultures do that, ones where the educators are curious and innovative and solving real world problems just like kids.
It is also pertinent to clarify what Richardson means by ‘learning’. Recently, I attended one of his presentations, where he asked his audience to define the word. The small dictionary that lives on my desk gives two definitions: ‘the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill’ and ‘knowledge acquired by scholarly study.’ Having watched Richardson’s 2015 TED Talk numerous times, I knew that he was looking for a definition more in keeping with the quality and impact of the learning needed in our schools. As expected, he was soon introducing one of his favourite mentors to the audience, Yale University Professor of Psychology, Seymour Sarason, along with the professor’s definition of ‘productive learning’:
Productive learning is where the process engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent (of) wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive.
(Sarason cited in Richardson, 2015)
A culture that acknowledges the future
Previously, I raised the issue of schools still using antiquated practices that were originally designed social and economic context. In the preface to his 2016 book Stop Stealing Dreams (What is School for?), Seth Godin (2016), US author and former dot com business executive, praised the Harlem Village Academies School (HVA) as the kind of school needed for our times:
HVA is simply about people and the way they should be treated. It’s about abandoning a top-down industrial approach to processing students and embracing a very human, very personal and very powerful series of tools to produce a new generation of leaders.
(Godin, 2016, accessed at medium.com/@thisissethsblog/stop-stealing-dreams)
The vast majority of parents would, I suspect, expect that their children be treated similarly. Yet Godin is highlighting this as an exception to the rule. If we ignore the colourful furniture and technology present in our schools today, we would find that most schools are not that different from the schools our students’ grandparents attended. Too many of our schools have not chosen to transform their teaching and learning practice—and are unlikely to adapt in the future—in order to prepare our students to address an ever-changing world.
Consider this. Most educators around the world are mandated to teach a curriculum primarily based on acquiring skills and knowledge to prepare students to live fulfilling lives—however, much of these skills and knowledge is consistent with the studies our students’ parents learned when they were at school. The prediction that knowledge will likely be doubling every 11 to 12 hours (Schilling, 2013; Rosenberg, 2017) is made more complex by how quickly it will take current knowledge to become outdated, incorrect or irrelevant. Mark Rosenberg points out that one measure of knowledge is its half-life, the time it takes to lose half its value.
For many content domains, especially in science, technology, R&D, marketing, and even finance, the half-life of knowledge is shrinking. Information that 10 years ago was useful for 12 months might only be valuable for 6 months today.
It is Rosenberg (2017) who coins the phrase of a knowledge tsunami—‘a seemingly unstoppable wave of new information pushing you forward, combined with an extremely forceful undertow of information that used to be valuable but is now just knowledge clutter, pulling you back’.
John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas also address this situation in their book A New Culture of Learning. Cultivating the Imagination: Building Learning Environments for Innovation (2011).
For the last 200 to 300 years, the primary concerns in education had been with skill efficiency and scalable efficiency, that is how to optimize the transfer of expert-generated knowledge to students, even across a nation. However, the world is moving into a state not of fixed essence but of constant flow. In this world, much of the knowledge that is created is tacit because there is no time for it to be distilled, encoded and communicated before the next shift happens. This greatly challenges the relevance of standard pedagogies that have to do with explicit, rather than tacit, knowledge.
(Brown & Thomas cited in Richardson 2017)
Richardson summarises the implications of Brown and Thomas’ work for educators as follows:
What that means, in essence, is that memorizing knowledge that has been codified over time is increasingly an irrelevant effort in a moment where the half-life of that knowledge is getting shorter by the day. An emphasis on texts and facts in school, that stuff that has been made explicit over time, will not serve students as well as developing their ability to tap into the tacit expertise that individuals accrue in their day to day dealings in the actual world, not in the past. That means an emphasis not on standard curriculum as much as it means building literacy in connecting, creating, and curating within the global networks and communities that we now have access to online. It’s a move away from learn by reading and memorization, to learn by doing.
(Richardson, 2017 accessed https://modernlearners.com/the-changing-nature-of-knowledge/)
It is perhaps pertinent to remind readers here, as Rosenberg does, that Alvin Toffler warned us of the effects of this knowledge tsunami when he wrote in his book Future Shock, published in 1970, ‘the illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn’ (Toffler cited in Rosenberg, 2017). Many of our more traditional schools will find such a change difficult to implement!
Informal, non-hierarchical and open learning
In grappling with how we might transform our schools in the future, I am drawn to the writings of the futurist David Price (2013, 2015). Price argues that children’s learning in school is increasingly different from the learning they acquire outside of school, where the learning is informal, social, non-hierarchical, unsupervised and ‘open’. This is in stark contrast with the highly structured and directed nature of learning (or, more accurately, teaching) in most schools. The pedagogical re-orientations Price describes between formal and informal learning have been very much in mind as we have forged our classroom practices at WPPS so that
T[t]he grades that individual students receive for their school projects matter little compared to the comments found of their blogs, or their Vimeo accounts. Rising numbers of parents, frustrated by the worksheet culture of their child’s classrooms, are self-organising and co-creating local home-learning networks. Teachers are taking to Twitter and TeachMeets to create informal self-help professional learning networks.
What ARE THE UNDERPINNING PRINCIPLES OF SUCH A CHANGE?
How have our teachers and students implemented these changes?
Transforming a school does not happen overnight, and schools interested in challenging the educational status quo need to be aware of how difficult this task may become. John Hagel, a management consultant who assists executives to address emerging business opportunities and challenges, contends that every large and successful institution has an immune system—‘a collection of individuals who are prepared to mobilise at the slightest sign of any “outside” ideas or people in order to ensure that these foreign bodies are neutralised’ (2017). He points out that in rapidly changing times, if much-needed changes are not implemented, this same immune system can lead to the death of the institution. This is a situation, I would argue, our profession finds itself in today.
It is also important to note that the knowledge tsunami discussed above will increasingly require educators to focus children’s learning on real world action, collaboration, reflection and verification, if students are to be proficient life-long learners, able to learn, unlearn and relearn. The strengthening of school–industry partnerships, raised earlier, will be another important factor in allowing students to experience real world learning.
For WPPS, transforming our school has taken place over more than two decades and there is still much more to be accomplished. Our journey at times has been a lonely one, as many of our professional colleagues—consistent with Hagel’s warning—do not share our commitment to creating a paradigm shift. Thankfully, we have been able to learn from the writings and presentations of a host of distinguished educators, and use these learnings to inform our journey. Educational theorists like Yong Zhao, Valerie Hannon, Ken Robinson, Pasi Sahlberg, David Thornburg, Bob Pearlman, Andy Hargreaves, Stephen Heppell, Will Richardson, Michael Fullan, Elliot Washor, Sugata Mitra, Bruce Dixon, David Perkins, Charles Leadbeater and many others, have been our silent partners on this journey. Their wisdom has broadened our thinking and provided theoretical and practical evidence that supports our innovations.
Learning communities and personalised learning
Early in our journey, the school leadership team recognised that we needed to document the changes we were making to learning at WPPS for parents and future staff. As a result, our website has a wealth of film explaining our pedagogical practices. In 2014, the school completed a series of thirteen videos focused on our approach to Personalising Student Learning. These videos were subsequently translated into Spanish by Sister Monica from the College Montserrat in Barcelona. I mention these videos here, because much of what is described is still pertinent today and provides the thinking from which many of our recent innovations have evolved.
Our first stop was housing all of our students together in ‘learning communities’ under the direction of a team of teachers, with each teacher given the added responsibility for shaping the learning journey of around twenty students. Much of our energy and time initially was devoted to redesigning the learning environment, a focus that continues today. During this initial period of innovation, we sought to personalise student learning within a collaborative framework influenced by Reggio Emilia philosophy, and focused it primarily around four pedagogical practices:
Workshops: traditional, large-group presentations focused on specific subject areas, or broader interdisciplinary learning themes
Targeted teaching: small-group teaching sessions designed to address the individual learning needs of selected students
Student–teacher conferences: short weekly meetings designed to co-plan and differentiate each child’s learning
Learning agreement time (LA): for younger students, LA is about providing small provocations to inspire students’ learning and allowing them to explore the various learning centres that comprise their learning community. For older students, on the other hand, LA is about them increasingly taking responsibility for their learning, as they negotiate their independent studies with their teachers and undertake collaborative or personal inquiry or problem-based projects.
The decision to continue grouping our students primarily based on their age has been somewhat problematic. We recognise that age is not a good indicator of learning growth or potential, and that even if teachers are highly cognisant of the need to provide a differentiated learning program, grouping by age can prove less than ideal for some students. Grouping by age does, however, provide a social structure conducive to building learning communities that can grow and ‘flower’ over the course of our students’ primary schooling. To address the limitations of this type of grouping, we are encouraging older year level learning communities to bond with younger learning communities nearby, while also encouraging talented younger students to participate in learning activities designed for older students. This requires our teachers to be extremely mindful of their students’ interests and capabilities, along with the breath of learning taking place across the school.
In 2015 I received an email from the American educator, David Thornburg, requesting some photographs of our school to include in a book he was writing, From the Campfire to the Holodeck.5 Thornburg argues that from primordial times humans have learned in four discrete ways: at the campfire, at the watering hole, in the cave and from life—metaphors for direct teaching, collaborative learning, learning from oneself (through reflection and introspection) and building on one’s learning in the course of your daily life. He also created fifty short videos to excite students’ learning, a program he called ‘Knights of Knowledge’, and built a holodeck in Brazil where older students could experience life onboard a spaceship destined for Mars. As a principal who believes that schools should be as exciting as Disneyland, I was immediately hooked.
In response, we started to prepare our own films to excite our students’ learning and challenged our students to undertake ‘Enigma Missions’ to solve the conundrums and mysteries of life. We also built a new learning space, which we called the Enigma Portal on the recommendation of one of our students. Unfortunately, our plans were hindered, in part, by our inability to produce films quickly, a significant task given the multitude of topics in which students expressed an interest. It was at this point that my Assistant Principal in charge of the senior school, Jennie Vine, resolved our problems and laid the foundation for many of our more recent pedagogical innovations.
Jennie recognised that it was not essential that we prepare films to excite students’ learning. She used students’ innate curiosity, along with her worldly knowledge and teaching skills, to introduce students to a number of next-practice pedagogical practices. Our subsequent involvement in the AITSL Learning Frontiers Program, led by Valerie Hannon, along with our inclusion in Michael Fullan’s international research project, ‘New pedagogies for deep learning’, helped solidify these innovations.8 Our raison d’etre, ‘Creating a new education paradigm: Our school’s journey’, summarises where we are today relevant to our underpinning practices, pedagogy and student attributes. (See Figure 1)
Enigma Missions as a pedagogical practice were dramatic in their impact. From day one of our journey to transform our school, one of our goals has been to increase students’ ownership of their learning. But the increased levels of student agency that resulted from the introduction of Enigma Missions was beyond our expectations, as was the quality and advanced nature of student learning.
We soon learned that students’ interests extended well outside the normal primary school curriculum, and this presented a dilemma. Should we allow our students to explore and have an impact on social issues they felt strongly about? Should they learn about black holes, DNA, autism, de-extincting animals, the God Particle, or how the brain works? We chose to allow our students to select their own Enigma topics, although some of the students’ choices, for example exploring homelessness on our city streets, needed to be modified for cultural sensitivity or to avoid placing students in danger.
It wasn’t long before our Enigma Missions began to influence other areas of the curriculum and in particular the Year 5 & 6 literature studies. The following infographic ‘Literature as a Catalyst for Research and Deep Learning’, (See Figure 2), tracks the ease through which the concept of Enigma Missions morphed into the ideal medium for students to research and respond to an author’s deepest thoughts. Three short videos are available on the school’s website: ‘Enigma Missions – Student Voice’, ‘Enigma Mission Evolution’ and ‘In Search of Deep Learning’. Professor Michael Fullan has shown these videos around the world to educators involved in the ‘New Pedagogies for Deep Learning’ project.
FIGURE 2: Literature as a catalyst for research and deep learning
It is also important to understand that the Enigma Missions were not an exercise in surface learning. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a former secondary school teacher, Jennie expected students to provide a bibliography detailing their research sources, contact experts for additional information and be prepared to present their findings to, and answer questions from, their peers, teachers and parents. She also recognised that the students’ learning needed to be ‘layered’ in order for them to move from surface to deep learning and share this learning with their peers. This led Jennie to introduce a new pedagogical practice called ‘Learning Symposiums’.
Learning Symposiums promote student ownership, autonomy and collaboration, shifting student knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. As in a Q and A forum, audience members in a Learning Symposium have a specific task. They must interrogate the student presenter respectfully, probing the depth of their knowledge throughout their presentation. Prior to the experience, teachers ensure that all members are aware of questioning technique, etiquette, social conduct and expectations.
Students complete their presentations without using cue cards, after which they are expect to note the areas of weakness in their research. They are then set the task of addressing research gaps, oversights and inaccuracies before the next Symposium, where they will represent their project. The chance to reassess and represent their research encourages accountability and promotes purpose.
Learning Symposiums are not age specific and require mixed audiences made up of students, teachers, parents, professionals and community members. They encourage the cross pollination of knowledge, building new thinking pathways, and broadening and deepening existing understandings or perspectives. They also provide teachers with an opportunity to audit the project-based learning taking place at the school against the Victorian Curriculum. Teachers require considerable skill, supervising student research while at the same time identifying learning outcomes on the Victorian Curriculum which need to be covered. They must be prepared to stretch their own understandings, embracing research and the cross-referencing of students’ work, authenticating what has been presented, all while allowing students to explore their learning outside traditional boundaries. We are now working with other year level teachers to modify Learning Symposiums for use with younger students, as we do with much of the next-practice pedagogy introduced into the Year 5 and 6 learning community.
A more recent innovation to the Symposiums is the introduction of an ‘orange card’. Orange cards are flagged when the student presenting has exhausted his/her core evidence and has entered what we call the ‘impulsive/emotional dialogue zone’. This is when the presenter becomes emotional and tries to defend themselves in order to persuade the audience to buy into their thinking, rather than focusing on facts. At this point, the presenter has to record the point of view of the student who has challenged them, conduct further research to address the question, then report back within a fortnight. This way, deeper discussion can transpire. This process of acknowledging and facing challenges is quite transformative in nature, as it can not only change the thinking of the presenter, but that of all participants who eagerly await the next instalment of carefully analysed data.
Teachers have also adapted the use of Learning Symposiums to include Maths Symposiums. This involves groups of students being asked to solve mathematical problems and report their solutions to their peers in the Symposium format. Students’ varying solutions to problems generate in-depth discussions of mathematics that build on their existing knowledge. In response to this increased use of Learning Symposiums as a pedagogical practice, we have built a tiered seating area where the Symposiums can take place. The tiered seating is arranged as an intimate amphitheatre to support the discursive practices of the Enigma Missions inquiry processes.
Autonomous Learner Cards
Another successful pedagogical practice for the school has been the ‘Autonomous Learner Card’ (AL Card). This program is about encouraging all students to recognise themselves as autonomous learners. The Card allows Year 5 and 6 students to work outside the confines of their learning community. To obtain an AL Card, students have to write a formal application addressing a list of questions that relate to their ability to work and learn unsupervised. They are also required to attend an application interview with a panel comprised of students and teachers. If successful, they are given a two-month trial. On the successful completion of the trial, applicants are formally recognised as Autonomous Learners at a meeting of the Student Parliament.
Students as teachers and mentors
The adoption of the simple pedagogical practice of encouraging all students to see themselves as teachers and mentors, passing on their expertise and wisdom to other students, has also proven extremely beneficial. Jessica Langer, writing for the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s ‘Usable knowledge’ blog, comments that allowing her high school students to teach their peers sends a powerful message to her students: ‘You have knowledge worth sharing, you have a teacher’s trust, and you have an opportunity to support your friend’s learning’ (Langer, 2016). For WPPS the program has also proven beneficial in other ways. First, it can be adapted for all year levels, with our Prep Professors program proving a resounding success and second, it has been used very successfully to socialise some of our high functioning autistic students. Seth, one of the students in question, is Singaporean and as such started his schooling in Singapore, where he was unable to adjust to the compliance-centric learning environment. His father searched the web for a more supportive setting and enrolled Seth at WPPS, where his talent with all things digital proved the ideal vehicle for his socialisation with other students. I still remember vividly when as a Year 1 student he was asked whether he could teach Year 3 students the software program ‘Spore’. He paused and thought very seriously for a number of seconds, before thoughtfully replying, ‘I … think … I … can … make … it … simple … enough … for … them’. Recently Seth and his family were featured by the Singaporean TV Station Channel 5 as part of a four part series on child prodigies. The film featuring Seth has had over 1 million views on FaceBook.
Entrepreneurial and digital skills
WPPS also emphasises the development of students’ entrepreneurial skills and ability to leverage the digital world. Students are encouraged to apply for loans from the Student Bank to establish start-up businesses. The bank is managed solely by the student leadership and financed via a grant from the school council. Profits raised after repayment of the loans are split evenly between worthy social causes and the Year 6 Graduation Class. This allows our exiting students to purchase a gift for the remaining students to commemorate their association with the school.
In embracing the digital world, the school has discovered that some students have skills in this area that are more advanced than ever expected of primary school-aged children to solve! Students have developed everything from virtual reality games and custom built computers to fully functioning virtual and physical CISCO networks, and have recently started work on creating a life-sized, 3D-printed, open-source robot. Wherever possible, WPPS has sought to introduce cutting-edge advancements into our digital programs, as highlighted by students’ exploration of virtual and augmented reality; coding; computer building; CISCO routing and switching; blockchain technology; crypto-currencies; robotics and 3D printing. Students have become the driving force behind these programs, as they traverse a multitude of digital terrains without fear of failure. There are numerous videos on the WPPS website featuring our approach to digital learning.
In introducing our students to the digital world we have learned not to purchase digital equipment inconsistent with our determination to create a new education paradigm. For many schools, ICT has only served to reinforce the status quo. David Thornburg alerted us to this problem when commenting on the use of interactive whiteboards and clickers in schools. The problem is that ‘this technology operates on the assumption that the best way for students to learn is for teachers to stand and deliver presentations’ (2013, p …). The limited use of social media in schools is another example of the status quo prevailing. For most children, social media dominates their lives out of school. Yet the dangers associated with students using this often intrusive medium has prevented many schools from using social media to support children’s learning. In avoiding social media, these schools fail to avail themselves of opportunities to more effectively link students, parents and teachers in ways never before possible. The introduction of the SeeSaw app to provide our parents with real-time glimpses into their children’s school day highlights the importance social media can play in involving parents in their children’s learning.
In contrast with many schools, WPPS has not introduced a one-to-one program, preferring instead to adopt an ‘agnostic’ approach in order to encourage our students to learn to use a variety of operating systems. This, in turn, allows our students to bring from home a wide variety of equipment to use at school. (WPPS is seriously considering the use of smartphones in our older year levels.) We are also careful not to focus all of our attention on developing our students’ coding skills, preferring instead to include networking and computer making in our list of school priorities. The school’s Education Technologist, Kieran Nolan, is also involved in a number of future oriented research projects designed to use cutting-edge technology for educational purposes. An outline of these projects— InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), Full nodes, Holochain, Digital financial literacy, Minecraft, Blockwisdom, NEM blockchain voting, STORJ blockchain—is given in the Appendix to this paper.
Stimulating Learning Platforms
As mentioned earlier, since 1997 WPPS has sought to create a learning environment for our students and teachers that supports our pedagogical beliefs, and despite limited funds and a school design hardly favourable to such a goal, we have succeeded in creating an indoor environment recognised for its creativeness and individuality. The building of ‘Stimulating Learning Platforms’ (SLPs) at WPPS has allowed teachers to tap into children’s imaginations to create learning environments that despite their imaginary nature are very authentic to children and highly experiential and interdisciplinary. These environments are often launching pads to further experiences. They also acknowledge the importance of children’s creative play in supporting their learning.
Figure 3: Stimulating Learning Platforms at WPPS
As Figure 3 shows, examples of SLPs are the Dragon Boat and Spaceship in our Year 2 and 3 learning communities, and for older students there is the above mentioned Enigma Portal, our school’s digital learning hub. SLPs offer new and exciting ways for students and teachers to conceptualise learning and to create problem solving situations, and are designed to elicit new understandings. This raises the possibility that the design of schools in the future may be significantly more interactive, as school planners capitalise on new technology to provide authentic experiences for students by way of highly interactive, virtual and augmented experiences.
In recent years the school has establishing a number of further SLPs: a Music Room, a Robotics Room, an Environmental Science Room and a STEAM Centre made out of four shipping containers. The latter will feature an outdoor Makerspace, a Filming and Recording Centre, Science Area, Networking Room, Virtual and Augmented Reality Areas, along with areas focusing on 3D Printing and Game Making. The school also hopes to establish a Holoportation Centre when it is financially viable.6
Prioritising student agency
Two tenets have underpinned our journey over the past two decades: ‘change the system not the child’ and ‘do things with children not to them.’6 Keeping faith with these tenets would seem an easy task, but it is far from easy! Even the best of my teachers will at times send their students to me to be admonished, without fully listening to their stories. And almost daily, teachers are confronted with the latest government system, newly released literacy program, or a directive from their school’s leadership team, with some form of system to be implemented. Many of these systems are entirely appropriate, but many lack the structure to differentiate learning for students, requiring the student to meet the needs of the system, rather than the system meeting the needs of the student. In contrast, it is important that teachers reading this paper recognise that they would need to adjust each of the pedagogical practices outlined above according to the needs of their students and the flow of the learning taking place. In doing so, they would allow each learning experience to determine its own path.
As you may have already ascertained, central to the pedagogy outlined is the concept of student agency. Renaissance.com describes student agency as ‘learning through activities that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated with appropriate guidance from teachers’ (Renaissance.com, n.d.). Surprisingly, student agency is not well understood by many educators. A recently published paper by Charles Leadbeater looks more deeply into the role student agency plays in preparing students to shape their future. Leadbeater’s paper stems from his work as an advisor to the OECD Education 2030 project and explores the origins, development and benefits of student agency in today’s schools. His depiction of agency reflects powerful forces not present in Renaissance.com’s description:
Agency is about acting rather than to be acted upon; shaping rather than to be shaped; and choosing rather than to accept choices decided by others.
Some educators regard student voice as synonymous with student agency. While student voice is certainly a component of student agency, it is not student agency. Other educators see student agency as a form of child centred education. Leadbeater rightly points out in his paper that ‘agency requires students not just to make choices but to make investments in pursuing their goals’ (2017). It is this willingness by students to personally invest in their learning that makes student agency such a potent and productive aspect of their education. Figure 2 presented earlier in this paper includes a reference to ‘Building a thirst for learning’ as one of WPPSs underpinning philosophical practices. If there is a ‘Holy Grail’ of teaching, I cannot think of a more fitting achievement than building a thirst for learning in our students. Central to achieving such a goal, I would argue, is the introduction of student agency at all levels of schooling.
There will be educators who would be appalled at our decision to allow primary school students such a strong voice in what they learn, along with our willingness to embrace a less hierarchical and ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to student learning. Students want to learn topics that engage and challenge them. Perhaps even more importantly, they want teachers to value what they have to say! Yes, there are aspects of the curriculum that are appropriate for all students to learn; but it is equally important that we accept that not all students are good at the same things. Yong Zhao (2016b) tells us that we should ‘run away from our weaknesses’ and focus on enhancing our individual human talents. While I strongly agree with the need to enhance the individual talents of students, I do not believe in defining boundaries for students’ learning, particularly for young students. Only recently, one of my colleagues commented that his son hated reading—until he started to read the Harry Potter books!
It is, however, likely that I am doing Zhao an injustice by interpreting his words out of context, as in the introduction to his latest book, Reach for Greatness (2018), Zhao highlights our profession’s obsession with finding deficiencies in children’s learning. This focus, Zhao points out, is often detrimental to the development of children’s strengths, as we spend most of our time treating their weaknesses. He describes this approach as ‘Deficit–Driven Education’, and notes that this is focused on closing the gap between privileged and underprivileged students. He observes, however, that this paradigm is ‘not likely to bring about social mobility for the traditionally under privileged’ (2016b).
Earlier, I raised the issue of student disengagement by quoting two frequently asked questions by secondary school students. I should have included a third question, ‘Why do I have to learn this?’ Clearly, the high rate of student disengagement requires changes to how educators develop and deliver the curriculum for today’s students. Central to this is the need to develop a more personalised approach to curriculum development and central to this, is the issue of relevance.
Like many educators, I have a number of treasured documents that I refuse to discard. One of these documents is a paper written by Elliot Washor and Charles Mojkowski, ‘Perspectives on relevance and the quest for rigorous student learning’. The paper tells the story of Ed Ames, who as a young boy grew up in a fishing village, wanting to be a fisherman. His father considered him too small and frail for such a job and sent him off to school, where he merged his love of fishing and science to become a distinguished marine biologist. Washor and Mojkowski argue that every learner is an Ed Ames, with interests that can be used to create relevant and powerful learning opportunities. Their words are perhaps even more pertinent today than when they wrote them in 2008:
We believe that most attempts by schools to increase relevance fail because they are not thinking deeply about what constitutes authentic relevance. Three core requirements for relevance are particularly overlooked. The first is that relevance is in the eye—and mind—of the student, not the teacher. Second, relevance redefines the student–teacher relationship, requiring the teacher to establish a relationship with the student through his interests. Finally, relevance requires a balanced attention to students’ interests and the curriculum.
Washor & Mojkowski (2008)
It is my sincere hope that the innovations outlined in this paper address all three of the above priorities.
Two more issues: The overcrowded curriculum and the state of educational leadership
Despite the innovations outlined above, serious challenges to our quest to shift the educational paradigm remain. As I approach the end of this paper, I would like to point to two issues facing all schools trying to transform themselves—our overcrowded curriculum and the prevailing nature of educational leadership—the latter strongly influenced by the actions of State and Federal Governments. Our overcrowded curriculum impacts heavily on teachers, resulting in most finding themselves ‘time-poor’, particularly when we combine curriculum needs with the additional accountability and data processing requirements discussed earlier. This is a situation which often results in teachers addressing their accountability tasks first and students’ needs second!
Unfortunately, our overcrowded and outdated curricula is far more insidious for schools wishing to innovate. Not long ago, I organised a two-day conference for my staff and asked six of my Year 6 students to tell staff what they liked and did not like about our school. Staff were particularly interested in the Enigma Missions that one boy had undertaken. In Year 5, he had chosen to research Black Holes and had become particularly interested in the work of Albert Einstein. When asked what he wanted to study at the start of Year 6, he replied ‘Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity’. His mentors for these projects were scientists from NASA.
The boy in question was subsequently asked by one of the teachers how much time had he spent on his Enigma Mission at school and at home. To my disappointment, he said he spent around 95 per cent of his time researching the topic at home. I immediately realised we had a serious problem. The innovations we had introduced had simply been added to an already overcrowded curriculum, with little or no thought given to what we could delete from the curriculum in order to meet this student’s needs. While, subsequently, we have emphasised the importance of students negotiating their learning with teachers, the problem is far from resolved. By forcing students to pursue such learning at home, teachers, unwittingly, are maintaining the status quo and undermining the school’s commitment to student agency.
This is not surprising given the dearth of educational discussion about this issue and the emphasis governments and parents place on our outdated, level-based curricula. Two educators who have seriously addressed this issue are David Perkins, from Project Zero and Valerie Hannon, from the UK Innovation Unit. Both have written thought provoking books on the subject—Perkins’ Future Wise (2014) and Hannon’s Thrive (2016).
A recent paper written by Andreas Schleicher for the Centre for Strategic Education (2018) highlights the finding—based on OECD surveying—that three out of four teachers in the industrialised world consider their workplace ‘an environment that is essentially hostile to innovation’. In the same paper Schleicher attributes this situation to conservative leadership:
[T]he real obstacle to educational reform is not conservative followers but conservative leaders: leaders who exploit populism to preserve the status quo; leaders who stick to today’s curriculum rather than adapt pedagogical practice to a changing world, because it is so much easier to stay within everybody’s comfort zone; leaders who invest in popular solutions …
While I agree with Schleicher that there are many principals and educational leaders who are unwilling to recognise the need for a paradigm shift in our system of schooling, there are many leaders who fight a daily battle to overcome departmental and Government directives aimed at preserving the status quo. Consider the following comments from highly respected educators. Nelson Gonzalez, co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer of the personal learning technology company Declara, writes:
While we have many ‘beautiful exceptions’ around the world of what great learning looks like, we have not been able to move these to sustainable scale, in a way that ensures equitable access.
At the invisible epicentre of this drama there exists a fascinating breed of leaders who embody this current predicament—cohorts of teachers, school leaders, administrators, policy makers, and community activists who understand that they must, every day, carry out two contradictory tasks:
Responsibly implement the mandates of the current system for the sake of the young people still in it (and for necessary self-preservation); while
Subversively designing components of new systems more attuned to the needs of these same young people.
These leaders understand that they must act, simultaneously, as hospice workers to dying structures whose utility has largely passed, and as midwives to emerging systems whose form is not fully defined.
David Price, who I introduced earlier, paints a similar, but perhaps bleaker picture of the bind in which school leaders find themselves:
The recent history of education policy in western developed countries—with the possible exception of Finland—could be summarised as short-termist and output driven. Command and control (and few sectors of public life are subject to as much command and control as education) deprives school leaders of the ownership of their destiny and how they will be judged. They live or die by their students’ performance in standardised tests, not their long-term ability to be adaptive, lifelong, employable learners.
(Price, 2015…. My emphasis.)
It is not as if progressive educators have been silent on the need for changes to our system of education. Pasi Sahlberg asserts that in their pursuit of results, Australian politicians have placed too much emphasis on competition between schools and students, making education too ‘high stakes’ (Sahlberg cited in McGowan, 2018). Tom Bentley agrees:
[A]t every level, Australian schooling is subject to a competitive dynamic, which disfigures the moral purpose of educational endeavour and distorts the choices and behaviour of students, teachers, school leaders, education policy makers and interest groups.
Numerous reports have been written on the subject of improving our schooling practices. Microsoft and McKinsey & Company in their paper ‘The class of 2030 and life-ready learning: The technology imperative’ affirm that:
A dominant theme of our findings is a need for greater student centricity and a heightened focus on learners. The students we surveyed were clear: they want to develop the skills to navigate their own learning—to explore and make choices that unlock their curiosity and potential. And they want teachers who know and understand them as individuals to help guide them on their educational journey.
(Microsoft and McKinsey & Company, 2018, p. 4)
In the same report, it is asserted that given our current education systems less than 50 per cent of students will be prepared for the fastest growing jobs of the future. It stresses the need for students to develop their social emotional skills—often referred to as soft skills—if they are to be employable in the future. Despite reports such as this, the Australian Minister for Education, the Hon. Dan Tehan, recently flagged a revamp of the national curriculum, saying we need to get ‘back to basics’ like reading, writing and maths, before worrying about ‘soft skills’ like teamwork and critical thinking (ABC News, 2018). Such a statement would be laughable, if it were not for the ramifications of implementing such a policy. Soft skills are the basic skills of tomorrow and the earlier we introduce them to students the easier they will be to learn. Resume Genius, a resume building website, lists the following as the ‘top ten skills employers love’:
Attention to detail
(Resume Genius, n.d.)
Why is it that our politicians have such a fascination with the so called basics, instead of exploring the advantages of what Price refers to as ‘open’ or ‘informal’ learning? ‘Back to the basics’ has been the catch-cry of politicians, conservative teachers and parents unhappy with the standard of learning in our schools for all of my career as an educator. However, I can honestly say I have never experienced a ‘golden age’ of learning that I wanted to recreate! As a young teacher it was the 3Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic. Today it is numeracy and literacy, as highlighted by NAPLAN. I do not question the need for our students to be numerate and literate. But I want much more for my students. I want them to live enjoyable, fulfilling lives when they leave school, and to do that, they will need to be more than literate and numerate.
The web is full of lists of twenty-first-century skills that today’s students will need in order to live fulfilling lives in a world dominated by information and change. Applied Educational Systems lists the following 12 essential skills: critical thinking; creativity; collaboration; communication; information literacy; media literacy; technology literacy; flexibility; leadership; initiative; productivity and social skills. The writers of this list believe that these skills are essential in the age of the internet.
I am not suggesting that the above list of skills, or similar ones, become our new basics. My purpose in listing these skills is to highlight the absurdity of focusing so much of our attention on a few historically important skills. This practice has narrowed the school curriculum, helped resist much needed innovation and ushered into our schools accountability practices that undermine our school principals’ and teachers’ roles as professional educators.
The following two paragraphs from Price may help further clarify the situation progressive educators find themselves in today:
Instead of a forward focused public discussion on the challenges of the labour market, or the opportunities presented by informal learning, what we have seen and heard from politicians and policy makers tends to be a nostalgic desire to return to the certainty of the ‘basics’. Such nostalgia is bolstered by the PISA performance of countries favouring traditional pedagogies (whilst neatly avoiding the inefficiency of learning systems that, in order to be successful, require students to work longer hours than 19th century English child factory hands).
While this myopic and somewhat irrelevant argument takes place, the gulf in motivation between the learning that our students have to do, and the learning that they choose to do, grows ever wider. Meanwhile, the implementation of standardised testing and high-stakes accountability leaves a devastating legacy of ‘side effects’ (Zhao, 2012): increasing student (and staff) disengagement; perceived irrelevance of formal education; and the loss of autonomy and trust in the teaching profession.
I would like to finish this paper with the thoughts of one of my students, followed by some concluding remarks about the increasing role of parents in the transformation of our schools. I do this because as I read back over my paper I realise that I have not captured the voices of my students, or their parents, and surely it is their judgement, in the final analysis, that decides our success or failure as educators. When asked to write a short statement about how her learning was progressing, the student, Kohuroa, responded:
So far, this year has been so different from last year. It feels like the world has just changed itself, just like that!
I believe that the whole idea of Wooranna Park Primary School is to lift us and our capabilities. The way the staff treat us is as if we’re adults and not students. Wooranna Park is to make us feel complete, like we have finally achieved something as students. To tell us that all our sins are in the past, like they were never even there.
I have felt dark days, like a shadow has been cast upon me, but Wooranna has helped me to overcome that and that’s what makes me, me. Wooranna is my home. The teachers are our role models, leaders. All of us are connected in some possibility.
I have done a lot this year. Enigmas for example. This is to help us with our knowledge, passion, education, leadership and our roles in life. I believe that we all have a voice and Wooranna is our guide.
(Kohuroa Haddon, Year 6 student)
If I, along with the many talented teachers I have been privileged to work with, have achieved anything in the past twenty-two years, it is because parents have trusted us to challenge the status quo. Today over 39 per cent of our students live outside the school’s postcode area. Many of the students travel a considerable distance to attend WPPS. They do so because their parents want them to have an education that both excites and prepares them to live fulfilling lives as adults. Our students and their parents are part of a growing cohort from around the world that want more from their schools. Sir Ken Robinson, in his 2018 book co-written with Lou Aronica, Your Child and School, Navigate Your Way to the Best Education, describes how he approached parents on Twitter and Facebook, asking them to tell him their concerns about their children’s education. In less than an hour, hundreds of people from around the world answered his request. The sample of replies included in his book are consistent with the general tenor of this paper.
Bec replied that her children’s ‘strengths are not valued and their weaknesses are magnified. Their grades are more important than their sense of self’(p …).
Kimmi asked, ‘Will my children discover their potential and be guided to a career that they love and are passionate about?’ (p …).
Conchita asserted, ‘I have all sorts of worries about my daughters. I feel the current system will not let them shine and my ten-year-old may not get what she needs to overcome her learning disabilities’ (p. …).
Jon was concerned that children ‘are gradually being taught not to enjoy learning; that it’s somehow an arduous rite of passage we’re all forced to go through with no sound reasoning. It’s a constant battle to keep that spark of curiosity and delight about learning alive when the system packages it and sets narratives about education the way it does’ (p …).
Karin affirmed that, ‘Education is broken. There’s too much pressure, too many tests, too many demands, too much assembly line. How can we reboot? How can we prepare our kids for a radically different life from the one the current system prepares them for?’ (p …).
Carol worried that the ‘one-size-fits-all approach, orchestrated by individuals that have no business dictating educational policy, is producing students who have no ability to think for themselves and [have] an absolute fear of failure’ (p …).
Another responder expressed concern as to whether schools ‘are teaching kids to be creative problem solvers. Testing doesn’t teach kids to be versatile thinkers’ (p …).
Tracey, meanwhile, voices a worry shared by many parents. ‘I’m most concerned with the fact that policy makers seem to have little regard for parent voices. The culture around parent voices is dismissive at best and those who make decisions about kids haven’t a clue what actually goes on in classrooms’ (p …).
I suspect that many of our students’ parents would express similar concerns about education in general. I know that they are worried that their children’s secondary schooling may not include many of the values and educational practices outlined in this paper. In response to these fears, they are exploring the possibility of establishing WPPS as a Foundation to Year 9 school. Logic says that the Victorian Government would be unlikely to finance such an undertaking, given the number of secondary schools in the area. This has not stopped a group of our parents and teachers canvassing support for such a project, despite the long list of obstacles they would have to overcome. Unfortunately, I can only admire their courage and tenacity, and wish them the best of luck in their quest.
I have decided to conclude this paper with a quotation from Will Richardson, whom I introduced earlier. In reviewing the current political climate in the US, Richardson laments the inadequacy of today’s education for preparing students to be ‘community’ and ‘country’ ready to address the challenges facing them. This poses a question for all of us involved in education:
Is there any question that we have sacrificed many of the life literacies that we all could certainly use right now in our worship for standardization, ranking, data and those things that are easy to measure? The ability to feel empathy for others, to discuss difficult topics with those who disagree with us in ways that don’t end up in a viral video, to ‘cope with’ change and, importantly, to adapt to new realities of every shape and scale. We’d rather teach the safe stuff, the state bird, multiplication tables, the Battle of Antietam, and Shakespeare, in the safe way, where none of it gets co-mingled and messy and iterative. The black and white version of schooling that predominates now leads our students to an ‘education’ yet leaves them ‘undereducated,’ illiterate in modern contexts, and deeply resistant to complexity. And so the question remains, only with even more urgency as chaos reigns. Will we change? Can we?’
(Richardson, 2017b, p …)
‘Best practice’ is used here to describe pedagogy generally regarded by the teaching profession as worthy of adoption. ‘Next practice’ refers to the introduction of innovative practices designed to reinvent the teaching profession in order to address the future needs of students.
The Australian Government is proposing to extend NAPLAN to include the testing of Year 2 and Year 8 students in 2018.
See Pygmalion in the Classroom by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, 1965. The Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance.
Evidence For Learning, “Setting or Streaming”. Accessed 26 April, at https://evidenceforlearning.org.au/toolkit/setting-or-streaming/
The holodeck is a fictional plot device from the television series Star Trek. It is a staging environment in which participants may engage with different virtual reality environments.
Microsoft describes ‘holoportation’ as ‘a new type of capture technology that allows high-quality 3D models of people to be reconstructed, compressed and transmitted anywhere in the world in real time. When combined with mixed reality displays such as HoloLens, this technology allows the user to see, hear and interact with remote participants’ (Microsoft, n.d.).
Professor George Betts of North Colorado University introduced these tenets to the school.
Professor Michael Fullan has shown these videos around the world to educators involved in the New Pedagogies for deep learning project
InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) is a protocol and network designed to create a content-addressable, peer-to-peer method of storing and sharing hypermedia in a distributed file system. IPFS was initially designed by Juan Benet, and is now an open-source project developed with help from the community.
We are implementing a platform that will empower WPPS students to have true agency over their work. The platform, called Rocketshoes, will be integrated with the NEM blockchain.
We have built and are currently running authentication nodes for numerous blockchains in the interests of the community and education; these include Ethereum, NEM and STEEM.
WPPS has invested in the development of the Holochain distributed network. Holochain is a data integrity engine for distributed apps. Data integrity is a key feature of blockchain technology as well as the Bittorrent protocol. It makes certain that data is verifiably identical across networked devices.
Digital financial literacy
We have purchased a number of Ledger Nano S hardware wallets to teach digital financial literacy and security. The Ledger Nano S is a Bitcoin, Ethereum and Altcoin hardware wallet, based on robust security features for storing cryptographic assets and securing digital payments. It connects to any computer via USB and includes an encrypted OLED display output to double check and confirm each transaction with a single tap on its side buttons.
Using Minecraft as a digital learning environment, we have developed a white hat hacking class. Incorporating blockchain hardware and software, students learn about secure hashing using 24-word passphrases.
A platform for tokenising of learning and for implementing a Learning Incentivised Income (LII) to increase student agency.
NEM blockchain voting
The NEM blockchain voting platform is a NanoWallet module that allows anybody to create and vote on polls stored on the NEM blockchain. Vote counting is made on the client with open-source code to guarantee decentralisation.
A platform designed to create a distributed, end-to-end encrypted and open-source sustainable future for cloud storage. Used by the WPPS Minecraft International Virtual Learning Space for decentralised object storage.
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The digital disruption of the book industry is giving rise to many opportunities, but the tools of self-publishing, content strategy and other digital methods are hard to access in the busy and complex culture of our schools.
So, I've set up Fantastic Learning Systems to afford school principals like Ray Trotter the time and means to tell their school stories. By modelling self-publishing, content strategy and other digital marketing tools in schools, I want inspirational stories like One School’s Journey To Create A New Education Paradigm to be surfaced and circulated. I fervently believe that such stories should to be the dominant ones we tell about our schools, lauding the professionalism that educators like Ray demonstrate everyday.
Principals As Story-tellers-in-Chief
Trending on-line topics on 'thought leadership' in business make interesting parallels to the way principals speak and write about education. For example, Duke Corporate Education at Duke University teaches its business management students that "Leaders need to gather narratives, artefacts, perspectives, and ideas that reveal ‘latent purpose’... Only then can leaders start building the narrative that will eventually morph into organizational purpose."
Ray's school story about how a conventional government school transforms its learning environment from the mid-1990s onwards highlights how its ‘reason for being’ drove the changes in its classrooms. Not the least, it shows how staff took up the challenge of proactively engaging in school-based reforms. It portrays a complex account of how pedagogies arise from embracing a vast educational world of ideas into the minutiae of every day classroom practices - how ‘big ideas’ translate into practices that saw the students becoming more responsible and autonomous learners; how individual staff members prepare students to live democratically and how staff and students collaborate on shaping a school culture founded on student agency.
Doing an school content audit
Before beginning my regular visits to the school in February 2018, I conducted a week-long perusal of content created by and about the school’s educational approach. The results were impressive. I surveyed over 150 substantial texts created between 1998 to 2017, all focused on describing WPPS pursuit of a new paradigm. I accessed
Debra Bateman's 2009 thesis, Transforming teachers' temporality: futures in curriculum practices and Esme Capp’s 2013 thesis Collective Inquiry: Using cultural-historical theory as a methodology for educational reform;
Chapter 9 of Suzie Boss's (2017) All together now: how to engage your stakeholders in reimagining school;
Chapter 8 of Claire McLachlan, Marilyn Fleer and Susan Edwards (2013) Early childhood curriculum: planning, assessment and implementation; and
30+ newspaper articles by local, state and national newspapers such as The Age, Herald Sun and Dandenong Star
I also found 78 articles in professional journals such as Architecture Australia, Prime Numbers, ACSA Australia, Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, The Royal Society of Victoria, Edutopia, Progressive Educators Network, CERES Sustainability Hub, Australia Asia Foundation and SteemEDU.
Other documents about the school could be found on local, state and federal members of parliament websites, state and national Departments of Education (most notably ACARA's myschool.com) and various 'good school guides' that rank the school in comparison to other Australian schools.
Furthermore, the text documents sit beside nearly a 1000 videos demonstrating various aspects of WPPS's pedagogy, photographs on Google images, a Twitter feed for the school, classroom-based blogs through Seesaw and Google for Education apps.
The benefits of such documents in building the school's reputation and status are not difficult to imagine. However, more measurable benefits, say, how news and publicity impacts on school enrolment or how it affects the evenness of classroom practices across the school may be harder to estimate.
So... What’s the FLS message?
My purpose for interacting with Ray’s story is not to advertise, brand or market WPPS in any conventional way. With the right budget, schools have been utilising aspects of the advertising industry long before digital technologies.
No! I am at WPPS to propose something different.
As digital technologies are now enabling everyone to self-publish, I am there to show that the principal’s school story is vital in leading school community digital engagement. Driven by a school's reason for being, all school stories simultaneously optimise the motivation and kudos of the school's learning environment. There's never been a better time for principals to tell their story!
Josey De Rossi, B.A Dip Ed (UWA) PhD (USYD)
Founder of Fantastic Learning Systems P/L
About producing this book
"If we don’t tell our story, someone else will, and more often than not, another’s version will not be the one we want told. Leaders need to become storyteller-in-chief...By doing so, we create the means by which we share all of the positives associated with our schools and create a much-needed level of transparency in an age of negative rhetoric toward education."
Eric Sheninger (2017) Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times